TEAM BLOG : Keith Symington - From Vietnam to the Philippines: How I came full circle following a turtle’s journey



Posted on 08 June 2013  | 
Keith Symington
© Keith SymingtonEnlarge
By Keith Symington, WWF Coral Triangle Strategy Leader

“Ten years…” I said to my colleague, Khuong, one late October morning back in 2007. “Ten years to make it work”.

I had just logged on to seaturtle.org to check the status of one of the green sea turtles we had been tracking by satellite transmitter from Con Dao archipelago, off of southern Vietnam. It had been over 30 days since completing a busy week of affixing satellite transmitters to several nesting females, a week that included a documentary filming by Infocus Asia. One surreal highlight of that week was when one of the turtles decided she just wasn’t into epoxy glue and instead tried to hightail it for the sea (note: stopping the forward movement of a determined 170 kg adult sea turtle wallowing her way back to the ocean is as challenging as it sounds).

“Ms. An” was that renegade sea turtle, named after the daughter of the science officer at the National Park. She came to lay eggs on the evening of September 22, 2007, and by late the next morning was (eventually) the proud owner of flipper tags VNS0263 and VNS0264 in addition to a shiny new satellite transmitter.

Con Dao–one of only two viable sea turtle nesting populations remaining in the country–had been a focus for WWF-Vietnam’s conservation activities for over a decade. It took ten years of steady, consistent work – training programs, surveys, research, community meetings, participatory Marine Protected Area (MPA) management planning, zoning (and re-zoning), sea turtle hatchery projects, tagging programs and satellite tracking – to get to the point where a demonstrably sustainable population of nesting sea turtles was evident. But, as the peer-reviewed data was starting to show, a sustainable population was evident.

From Con Dao to Palawan

“She’s in Palawan!” I said looking over knowingly at Khuong.

Ms. An was doing well. She had already travelled over 1000 kilometers, side-stepping (rather diplomatically)) the hotly disputed (and heavily fished) Spratly Islands region, bee-lining it straight to where the South China and Sulu seas converge. ..in Palawan.

Just four months earlier, Khuong had received an excited telephone call from Mr. Giang from Con Dao.. One of the nesting turtles had a foreign flipper tag! The team there had attached thousands of tags over the years but this was the first time they found a tag on one of the nesters that was not one of their own. The tag had the identifier “PCP”, which a quick search on the internet confirmed meant “Pawikan Conservation Project”, an initiative co-launched by WWF-Philippines. Further investigation revealed that the turtle in question had been tagged after being recovered from a fishing boat in, you guessed it…Palawan.

Of course Giang, consummate scientist and conservationist that he is, was intrigued with the notion that turtles could be recovered from fishing vessels, tagged, and then released. Less than a year later he had launched a similar project in Con Dao.

As the weeks went on, more tracked turtles ended up in the Palawan region, foraging up and down the length of the island’s northwesterly face. Ms. An continued to send data for over six months. Probably the transmitter eventually ran out of juice. Hopefully she was not killed as incidental bycatch or some other dire fate. There is no way to know, short of recovering the tags. But one thing is for sure – a lot of sea turtles, animals that nest all over the Pacific, from Vietnam to Taiwan to Palau, head to Palawan for most of their lives.

The turtles must be on to something

When I found out we were going to have the WWF Coral Triangle programme staff retreat and annual meeting in Palawan, I knew I was about to come full circle.

For starters, an important footnote is that WWF’s work at Con Dao really started with an organized visit in the late 1990s from the marine team of WWF-Philippines—a delegation that included a young Joel Palma, who now heads their marine program.

After spending time in Tubbataha Reef Marine Park, I knew there was something incredible about the place.
“It’s full of turtles!!” I said excitedly to one of my colleagues as we started our first snorkel at “Shark Airport” off one of the northernmost atolls of the park.

In almost 30 dives in Vietnam I had only seen sea turtles twice. Here I was, only a couple minutes into my first snorkel in Tubbataha, and I had already spotted four: two lone adult greens and a pair of courting hawksbills. By the end of the day I had seen well over a dozen. And oh yes…the reef sharks at Shark Airport had come out of their hangers too. Sharks, turtles, schools of tunas, jacks, Napoleon wrasse, parrotfish, clownfish, Moorish idols, barracudas, and what seemed like a thousand other species – it wasn’t hard to see why this is considered the global center of marine biodiversity.

Later that morning, as we gingerly passed over the shallow waters abutting one of the seabird breeding colonies, the number of turtles we could see from topside was uncountable. Looking down at that scene of plenitude and teeming abundance, my thoughts turned to Ms. An. Perhaps she was somewhere around here. Judging by the number of old adults I had spotted, it certainly seemed like a safe haven. And in the three days we were in the Park, I did not see one single fishing boat…not one! No wonder all those turtles in Vietnam go straight for here, I thought. They are on to something.

Charting the future by learning from the past

The connections witnessed during our annual meeting that week extended beyond biogeography and ecology to include people too. Folks from all over the Coral Triangle were gathering together to chart out the next steps for the WWF Coral Triangle programme that started six years earlier (around the time that I was gluing the transmitter on Ms. An). It was an opportunity to take stock in what had been achieved, but more importantly to map out a way forward that may enable sustainable, enduring conservation outcomes into the future—because conservation takes time.

“Twenty-five years”, said our expert guide Vel from WWF Philippines. “Tubbataha has been protected for twenty-five years now”.

I never did find the turtle with flipper tags VNS0263/VNS0264 and a not-so-shiny-anymore satellite transmitter. It’s been six years, I thought, so almost time for her to return to Con Dao to nest again. I like to think that when she does eventually leave, her intention will be to return again to this special place as soon as she can.

Just like my own intentions.

Keith Symington
© Keith Symington Enlarge
Ms An, star of the show
© WWF Enlarge
Ms An starts her journey
© WWF Enlarge
Ms An tracks
© WWF Enlarge

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